Reclaiming our indigenous Western roots. Some days, that seems like a big ask. But it’s been the focus of my work for a very long time now. It’s the reason why I wrote If Women Rose Rooted, where I had this to say:
In our own Western societies we are seeing more calls for a return to native wisdom, but we cannot live by the worldviews of other cultures, which are rooted in lands and histories that have little relationship to our own. And yet, so often we try to: we look for our spiritual practices to the East – to Taoism, for example, and to Buddhism; we look to the West for guidance on how to live in harmony with the land – to indigenous stories and traditions from the Americas. But fine as all of those traditions are, we don’t need to look to the myths of other cultures for role models, or for guidance on how to live more authentically, in balance and harmony with the planet on which we depend. We have our own guiding stories, and they are deeply rooted in the heart of our own native landscapes. We draw them out of the wells and the waters; beachcombing, we lift them out of the sand. We dive for them to the bottom of deep lakes, we disinter them from the bogs, we follow their tracks through the shadowy glades of the enchanted forest. Those stories not only ground us: they show us what we might once have been, we women, and what we might become again if we choose. … If women remember that once upon a time we sang with the tongues of seals and flew with the wings of swans, that we forged our own paths through the dark forest while creating a community of its many inhabitants, then we will rise up rooted, like trees.
It’s worth stressing that, although If Women Rose Rooted was focused on women finding their voices and their stories again, there are plenty of good stories about men in our native European traditions, too. Think of the Grail legends, where only a knight who understands the meaning of compassion – who understands the necessity to gently ask the question ‘What ails thee?’ of the wounded Fisher King – can hope to attain the Grail and help restore the Wasteland.
The truth is that the old forgotten pre-Christian mythologies and philosophies of the West – from the Otherworldly stories of Celtic Ireland, to the magical Finnish sagas, or the soul-centred mythtellings of Plato in ancient Greece – really are quite rich, complex and beautiful. They offer up not just a planet, but an entire cosmos in which everything is alive, and has purpose of its own. They speak of a world to which each incarnated soul chooses to come, for a reason: to fulfil its own unique calling, and to offer up a gift which can only be expressed through relationship with and participation in that animate world.
And so I was delighted this morning to read this beautiful and inspiring interview with Malidoma Somé in The Sun magazine, from Canada. In which he says this:
In a functioning society initiation raises awareness of life’s purpose and is not just oriented toward getting a job and making a living. We each need to have a personal mission that contributes to the well-being of the world. Finding one’s purpose is the primary goal of initiation. It also teaches responsibility toward community, village, and culture. The indigenous formula says that we all come into this world with a gift that we must give to the world. We must undergo initiation to discover what our gift is and how to share it. People in the West have forgotten — or never learned — how to perform an initiation that serves individual identity as well as purpose and gift. Once upon a time the West was indigenous. What happened to that path and those teachings? Was the Western indigenous path so bad that it had to be destroyed and replaced by Newtonian perception? How could it be that a path that served for so many thousands of years is now irrelevant?
I’ve been studying those indigenous Western traditions – the ancient Greek philosophers, the oldest literature and folklore in the Celtic countries of my ancestry – for a long, long time now. Followed the golden thread all the way through the centuries, examining the places where it frayed, where it knotted itself in the wrong places, where it actively snapped. And it’s very clear, all the way down the line, that one of the key places where we went wrong – and we can easily trace this all the way back to Plato and his fellow philosophers – was in valuing the rational, intellectual and transcendent to the absolute exclusion of the ‘natural’. In valuing only the possibility of some disembodied afterlife, and looking down on this world, this life, this human incarnation.
So how can we find our way back, pick up the threads in the places before they got tangled and knotted, learn to weave with them again? Because we’re like children in this work. It’s so easy to go wrong. To replace old dogma with new, and never to understand that it was the concept of dogma that was the problem all along, not always its precise content. To create empty ceremony; to focus on decorating the container rather than tending to the sacred liquid that it holds. And I believe that the way forward is not about what we say or what we do, or about trying to reconstruct the past. It’s about learning to perceive the world differently. Learning to live differently in it. Learning safe, respectful and authentic ways of approaching that Otherworld which is threaded through each and every one of our ancient European traditions.
Because we’ve forgotten who we are, today. We’ve forgotten the one thing that all our ancient traditions tell us: that we’re embedded in a world that is just as alive and full of soul as we think we ourselves are. Carl Jung and James Hillman each said in their different ways that psyche is not really in us; we are in psyche. We’re part of the world psyche; the anima mundi of ancient western tradition. Which is made up of each individual human soul, combined with the soul of everything else that exists – from a rock to a crow. So all of my work – my writing, and teaching – is focused on courting that world soul. And training ourselves in this art of courtship by cultivating the mythic imagination, by learning how to work with the imaginal world. Because the imagination, as the Jungian depth psychology tradition so clearly tells us, is the structure of the psyche, and myth is its language.
This work on cultivating the mythic imagination can be adapted to any tradition, and it’s profoundly transformative, profoundly initiatory. I’ve had two life-shattering initiatory experiences during my life. One of them – learning to fly a tiny single-engine prop plane in the stormy winter skies of Kentucky, interspersed with the heat and turbulence of the New Mexico desert, in response to a fear of flying – was the classic initiatory experience in which we must actively seek out and look into the face of death, and so come to terms with our own mortality. This prepared me for the second experience, a decade or so later, which took place over the four-year period when I lived in one of the wildest, most remote parts of the UK: the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. We lived right at the end of what is called ‘the longest cul-de-sac in Europe’, where the road gave out into the mountains and the sea, and your heart would give out along with it, if you weren’t well-fortified, or if you were foolish enough to believe that you still had anything left to lose. The four years I spent in that place were mythic. I was torn open, swallowed up, spat out. I learned the deepest lessons about the ways in which it is possible to fall into the dreaming of a particular land, to become part of its dreaming, inextricably woven into its unique node in the web of world and Otherworld. That very practical, very visceral experience complemented, and was integrated into, my studies of our old traditions. And those learnings are the foundation for all my writing (whether fiction or nonfiction) and for the courses and workshops we offer.
So this autumn, we’ll be offering a unique, new interactive distance-learning course which goes right to the heart of that reclamation of our indigenous roots. Which goes right back to basics, learning how to strip away the veil that prevents us from seeing how wonder-filled this world we inhabit really is. Once we’ve learned how to work with the mythic, the imaginal world; once we’ve learned to plug ourselves back into the anima mundi of which our oldest traditions tell us we’re part – well, maybe then we can worry about what clothes we wear while we’re doing it, or what labels we give to what we’re doing. Or (hopefully) not. Founded in authentic scholarship as well as committed, embodied practice in the mythopoetic and other creative arts, Courting the World Soul is the foundation course of what will be a series of teachings which are, above all, about finding our way back into the mystic – about delving into the mysteries of wild psyche, and finding a deep, embodied sense of belongingness to this beautiful, animate Earth. You can find out more about all the course at this link.